Getting to know St. Augustine
Anyone with a passing familiarity with St. Augustine will know that he is a giant in the history of Christian thought, and the average person might well be a little daunted by the idea of getting to know him. I remember distinctly the first time I was tasked to read Augustine’s Confessions (as an undergraduate), having been told that it was his autobiography. I quite naturally expected to find an opening line which went something like this: “I was born in Thagaste in 354 to loving mother Monica.” What I found instead is the famous passage with which the Confessions begins: “Great are you O, Lord and greatly to be praised.” This line was followed by a somewhat confusing discourse on who God really is and how Augustine might come to know him. And then, following that part, was something about the sinfulness of babies and how Augustine could not remember his birth or a time when he couldn’t talk. Although there were surely some interesting tidbits here and there, I really had no idea what the book was about and I did not get very far into reading what I knew was supposed to be a classic of Western literature.
A beginner might not fare too much better by picking up a modern biography of Augustine. Peter Brown’s magisterial Augustine of Hippo – which has a more familiar kind of opening: “when Augustine was born there in 354, Thagaste (modern day Souk Ahras, in Algeria) had existed for 300 years” – runs over 550 pages and has still been accused of not doing justice to Augustine’s theology. On the other hand, reading a paragraph in a saint-of-the-day book will probably not get you too far if you want to become the friend of this great saint.
So, what to do? The answer, of course, is to read the Confessions anyway. But I will offer one caveat: do not think that the Confessions is an autobiography. Any modern autobiography will begin by telling you something about the author – their birth, their reason for writing, some kind of indicator as to why you should care to know about their life. Augustine, however, begins the Confessions by telling you about God, or more accurately, by praying to God. Trying to characterize the genre of the Confessions is pretty difficult, but one point you must grasp before you pick it up is that the Confessions is not about Augustine, it is about God. Augustine is telling the story of his life in order that you can learn something about God, not something about Augustine. There is, therefore, something profoundly important you will learn from Augustine if you take the time to read this beloved work, and it is something about yourself: your life too only makes sense when it is lived for God. The Confessions will teach you not only about St. Augustine, but how to think like him, about how to understand yourself by trying to see the world from God’s perspective. That is why the first line of the Confessions is so masterful. It demonstrates that life is an act of saying thank you to God, and it does so in God’s own words, since Augustine is echoing in that first line Ps. 95:4. If you want to read the Confessions, everything you need to know – the entire “confession” – is contained in those first words: “Great are you, O Lord, and greatly to be praised.”
Of this first line, scholar J. J. O’Donnell writes that it “renders the remaining 78,000 or so words of the text superfluous. This exclamation is self-sufficient; nothing more need be said, ever. But the fall from eternity into time brought with it the fall from timeless immutability of discourse into a restless and open-ended search for God in the inspired texts.” In plainer words, if you were a saint like Augustine you would need nothing except that opening line. But, for the benefit of the rest of us, Augustine has laid bare his search for God so that we too might find him. So read the Confessions, but know that in the first line you have the whole story.